|Written by Robert Markwalter|
|Wednesday, December 19, 2012 9:42 PM|
Christmas Fiction by Bob Markwalter:
He stood under the awning and watched as the snow fell, big heavy flakes. The street was just covered and the snow softened the noise of the traffic and made the familiar buildings and benches and the cars standing at the curb somehow more interesting.
“I like the first of it, too.”
He looked at Frank, who was holding the door for him. He laughed and stepped toward the curb. Frank smiled.
“The kids will love it,” said Frank.
“Snow on Christmas Eve? They’ll be crazy for it,” he said. “I may have to get out the ladder and trace sled runners on the roof.”
Frank laughed, stepped away from the door to stand beside him, and they looked out at the street and the snow. He and Frank were the same age, and in 15 years they had developed an easy relationship. In the beginning, he had been just another broker, not a senior partner on his way to the boardroom. Frank, now head of the building’s concierge staff, had been just another doorman when they met. “Want to do a two-man pool on when the kids get to sleep tonight?” he asked Frank.
Their kids were about the same age. They had each settled down late, still had grade-schoolers, still looked forward to the rush of Christmas morning. They knew each other in the building that rose as an indistinguishable piece of the skyline and shared the easy familiarity of time and its human incidentals. They were friends, but not friends who shared the intimacies of daily life.
“Mister Gordon …”
“Harry, call me Harry. It’s Christmas Eve, Frank, and every time I tell you to …”
“It’s the job, you know that. And particularly tonight, Mister Gordon, because I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“Listen first, please,” said Frank. “And if you want to say you can’t, say it, because …”
“Ask, huh? What have we been standing here for fifteen years about if not a favor?”
“This is when I normally get you a cab, right? But tonight, could you – would you - drive my van to the food kitchen in East Brenden? I do some volunteer work there, and the van is loaded with food for the dinner tonight, and George called in sick and I have to work late, and …”
“Be glad to,” said Harry. “That’s pretty much on my way home, anyway.”
“Yeah, and I have a friend who drives a cab out that way. He says he’ll pick you up and take you home. I’ll pay him so you won’t …”
“I’ll pay him so you won’t,” said Harry. “My contribution to the effort. Look, Frank, really I’m glad to do this. I had no idea you were involved with this kind of thing.”
“Not part of the job here,” said Frank. “Not a good idea to mix soliciting for charity with your work, you know?”
Harry thought about the people in the office who had hit him up for donations to charities over the years. Frank was not in a position to do that. But then hungry people were not, when Harry thought about it, what the people in the office solicited about.
“Where’s the van?”
“In the garage. I’ll take you down and …”
“Point me and give me the keys. Merry Christmas, my friend.”
“You, too, Harry,” said Frank.
The van was easy driving. The snow plows were beginning to make their rounds and the streets were turning to muddy brown sludge, losing the softness of the first flakes that fell. It was not a long drive and he was almost to the food kitchen when his phone rang. It was Frank.
“Mister Gor … Harry, I hate to tell you this, but my cabbie friend got sideswiped by a snowplow and says he’s out of commission. But if you’ll call a cab, I’ll cover it for you on Monday.”
Harry smiled and said, “No sweat, I’ll call the cab, and I’ll cover it. Like I said ..”
“Hey, you’re a good man,” said Frank.”
Harry drove through the soft, wet snow. He was a good man, huh. If Frank had asked him to go out of his way?
Frank had not asked. He would pick up the cab fare. Maybe he would stop to fill Frank’s gas tank.
The headlights loomed suddenly in the mirror, swerved, flashed brightly past him, and as the car veered back into his lane its bumper clipped the van. The car swerved again, straightened, and sped on. Harry fought the van as it began to turn around on itself, brought it right, then it slid off the road and came abruptly to rest against a large, solid object.
Harry shook himself, got out, and looked. The van’s front fender was crumpled against a rock, the tire flat. He looked up. There was a gas station a few hundred yards away.
He called the police and walked to the gas station. He wanted a cup of coffee. He found a tow truck.
The truck’s driver was mounting the running board, one hand on the steering wheel, the other grasping a doughnut.
He looked at Harry and said, “I’m on my way home.”
The man’s eyes looked up the road. Harry saw the lights of a police car at the van. He said, “I gotta get back there.
But I gotta get that van to the food kitchen on Mallet Drive. It’s Christmas Eve. I’ve got the food, you know?”
“You always deliver food to the needy in your five hundred dollar suit?” said the driver.
Harry looked at his trousers. They were filthy, but unmistakably very expensive. He said “I’ll make it worth your while.”
“I’m gonna get a pizza and go home and watch a game,” said the driver. “I don’t wanna deliver food or toys or anything else.”
“Name a price,” sad Harry.
The driver looked at him, looked at the doughnut, and said, “Can I have dinner at the food kitchen?”
“Well, sure,” said Harry. “I mean, there‘s lots of stuff in the van …”
“I’m just … hell no, I’m eating there, too,” said Harry. “But if we’re going to have dinner, we gotta get the food there.
The cop was understanding, took some photos, got some names, and said he trusted Harry that no one would steal a van filed with food and talk a tow truck driver into pulling it to a food kitchen. Harry watched as the truck driver hoisted the van, then got into the cab beside him.
“Buckle,” said the driver.
The truck eased off the berm of the road. Harry called Frank. Frank said he was about to call Harry. The people at the food kitchen were worried. Frank was relieved, chagrined, grateful, and then the tow truck pulled off the road and into the lot at the red brick building with the hand-painted sign above the door.
Harry looked at the truck driver and, before he thought, said, “You’re a funny kinda guy.”
“Not really,” said the driver. “You ever spent Christmas Eve in front of the television with a pizza?”
Harry and the driver helped unload the truck. The driver sat down with a cup of coffee. Harry called Susan.
“Why not a cab?” she asked.
“Bring the kids,” he said. “We’ll have dinner here.”
He waited. “Its only four miles, maybe five,” he said. “We’ll get them home and in bed early. We’ll have cocoa with them. They’ll …”
“Harry, I love you because you always keep surprising me.”
Susan’s Mercedes looked out of place in the parking lot, her hair looked out of place in the dining room, and her jeans were too expensive. The kids’ clothes were not as worn as some of what the other children wore, their hair was more neatly trimmed, but they were kids and got on like none of it seemed to matter, especially after Frank and his family showed up.
There were tables to set, dishes to carry, games of tag and chase to be played. The tow truck driver did animal sounds, shadow figures, and a great Daffy Duck.
“How would you know?” said Susan. “If you met one of these folks on the street, in the grocery, how would you know they would need to be here on Christmas Eve? We live four miles from here.”
Frank heard her as he passed with a tray. He said, “I’m five the other way. I didn’t know the kitchen existed until four years ago.”
After dinner, Santa made an appearance. He looked a lot like Frank, whose kids giggled as they trooped up to get the small presents he offered. Small, but large in the eyes of the children who trotted back to their parents with their prizes. Harry and Susan’s boy and girl sat on Frank’s knee and took their gifts. Their eyes were as bright as every other child’s.
“We have so much to put under the tree at home,” said Susan. “It will make these things seem so … or will it?”
“I don’t think so,” said Harry. “They’ll remember this, someday, and those things will be ...”
Susan looked around the room. She said, “Do you suppose this will really mean something to us? Will we, what? Put our money where our hearts seem to be tonight?”
Harry pointed to their boy Jeremy, who was putting out a fire with the small plastic hook-and-ladder truck Santa had presented him, as a youngster in ragged jeans and scuffed tennis shoes brought his rescue equipment to the scene.
Frank came to their table and sat. He said, “Harry, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. And … Susan, I can’t tell you how much …”
“We’re the ones who ought to be short of words,” said Susan. “Can we do this next year? All year?”
“My agency is always bragging about its billings,” said Susan. “I think maybe we’ll start bragging about campaigns we don’t bill, too.”
“And my boardroom …” began Harry.
And then the tow truck driver, leading a conga line that swayed to “Rudolph” through the din of people large and small, passed their table. The driver looked at Harry and mouthed, “See you next year.”